Editorial 1 / Opening a map
Editorial 2 / Split all ways
Cutting Corners / Waiting for calamity
Fifth Column / Time to begin a whole new year
Book Review / The PM’s new poems
Book Review / How to define an international terrorist
Book Review / What keeps India alive and ticking
Bookwise / Idols of the marketplace
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / OPENING A MAP 
 
 
 
 
The Rakesh Mohan committee set some tracks, from which Ms Mamata Banerjee derailed the railways and the railway budget. Mr Nitish Kumar, minister for railways, has not exactly brought the railways back on track, but he, at least, knows the right direction. Passenger fares have increased, as they should. These increases are concentrated in the ordinary second class and monthly season ticket segments, which is where the bulk of the subsidization lies. Reduction of the differential between low-end and high-end fares was a key recommendation of the Rakesh Mohan committee, and that Mr Kumar has resisted populism and gone ahead deserves applause. In the process, cross-subsidization of passenger traffic by freight traffic will decline, though it will not disappear. Historically, across the board increases in freight rates have made railways uncompetitive and led to loss in freight to roads. The minister for railways has also rationalized freight slabs from 59 to 32, with a drop in rates between 800 and 1,400 kilometres and for some essential commodities. Understandably, the operating ratio (total working expenses plus depreciation and pensions to gross traffic receipts) will improve and the railways will pay dividends this year. But what happens to the arrears of dividends, amounting to almost Rs 3,000 crore? The operating ratio has also improved by reducing allocation to the depreciation reserve fund, required for maintenance. Given the safety record, repairs and track maintenance are more important than the announcement of new trains. The proposal of the safety cess and safety fund is fine, but there was no need to introduce new trains, most of which will incur losses.

The idea of a transparent formula for new railway projects is a good one. However, the problem of the largest expenditure component (wages, allowances, pensions) remains unaddressed, and corporatization of railways and functioning according to commercial principles have been postponed. Had that been done and had there been a tariff fixing authority, the railway budget would have become irrelevant and subsidy obligations could have come out of the general budget. Such drastic reforms were clearly beyond what Mr Kumar could handle.

Other than such reforms, the minister for railways would have received greater applause had he refrained from crazy schemes like offering railway-brand bottled mineral water. There is reason in sticking to one’s knitting, and having burnt its fingers with telecom and hotels, the railways should have exhibited greater sense. The idea of a Passenger Amenities Year and better services for passengers is fine, especially when the fare hike (including the safety cess) is the largest in 20 years. But this is no argument for the railways getting into areas where it has no comparative advantage. The minister claims that the budget provides a route map, in addition to making provisions for the next fiscal year. The latter point is valid. But on the former, no route map has been provided. The Rakesh Mohan committee’s map has simply been opened.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / SPLIT ALL WAYS 
 
 
 
 
In spite of the upbeat noises the Bharatiya Janata Party was making during the run-up to the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the party knew it would be tough going. Its last stint in UP has not been glorious, with corruption, inhouse bickering, fierce politicking over the changes of chief ministers and crackling caste divides showing up within the party. Mr Rajnath Singh did with the inherited situation what best he could, and to some extent blocked the rapid erosion of the BJP support base in the last year. But the damage was already too far gone. Holding on to the state was never an easy matter, since the fractured electorate has bred powerful leaders. What had helped the BJP was the fact that the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are sworn enemies. The situation now is, helpfully for the BJP, worse rather than better. For example, tentative efforts at bridge-building are not enough to return the Congress and the Samajwadi Party into each other’s arms. It does not matter that the BJP and the BSP have ruled the state together; their parting has not been of the warmest. Powerful leaders with strong vote banks have resulted in an irreconcilably divided mandate.

It is not enough for the BJP to put the defeat in UP down to the “anti-incumbency” factor. The rejection the party has suffered in Uttaranchal is a comment on governance, and this affects both states. Perhaps the BJP was too complacent about its hold over UP and Uttaranchal: certainly it felt that at the ballot box the Uttaranchal electorate would remember the party which created the state. And UP required far more attention than was given to it. The BJP’s confidence may have come from the fact that the opposition parties functioned more powerfully as oppositions to one another, besides self-destructively dividing the backwards and minorities vote. Ms Mayavati, though, has shown the BJP that “backwards” parties can diversify quite effectively. She now has not only a Dalit base, but also an upper caste and a substantial Muslim following. Letting the divided electorate be was a mark of complacency on the BJP’s part. Well thought-out policies may have extended the BJP following into other vote banks. Mr Singh’s most backward classes ploy was a last minute measure, struck down by the courts. The BJP may still have a slice of the pie, but that does not mean it has not learnt a hard lesson.

   

 
 
CUTTING CORNERS / WAITING FOR CALAMITY 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Familiarity breeds contempt; reiteration carried to excess brings ennui. The American establishment sets the agenda and, in this monastic world, the rest of us have, unthinkingly, conditioned ourselves to accept it wholesale. Terrorism — international terrorism — is the buzzword. The hysteria unleashed on September 11 last is now being rendered into a global phenomenon. Even otherwise, level-headed nations have begun to lose their cool. With some encouragement from the military and the police establishment, politicians of every description are currently engaged in the great game of terrorist-hunting. They are discovering a terrorist in every bush and in every nook and cranny. President George W. Bush’s heart is gladdened beyond measure: mischief, thou art afoot.

Is it not time to bring some sense of proportion back into the proceedings? By the nature of things, terror can no longer be an oligopolistic business cornered by a handful of states, led by the superstate in the north of the western hemisphere. The technology of terror is universalized. Sophisticated arms are available in large numbers here, there, everywhere; the knowledge necessary to operate them effectively is minimal. Almost every country has a porous border; in case the borders are not porous to begin with, they can be made so by well-known modes of lubrication. For corruption too is a global phenomenon; sentry and security guards are as vulnerable to the allure of lucre as heads of governments are.

The embargo on shipment of listed arms that they themselves have formally agreed to prohibit has been flouted with impunity by several Western countries. Over the past quarter of a century, the beneficiaries of such shipments have not only been Iran, Iraq, Libya and one or two African states, but outfits such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and organized gangs in Columbia or Equador masterminding the heroin trade as well. Many governments turn their faces the other way when such surreptitious deals are struck from which political parties in power benefit directly or indirectly, thanks to corruption in appropriate places. There is apprehension that even puny-sized nuclear wea- ponry could become a plaything in the hands of international mafia groups.

Please also take into account the lateral expansion of other technologies, particularly in the sector of information and communications. The email and the internet have been great civilizers, or, if you will, non-civilizers. Instant communication between locations as distant as ten or fifteen thousand miles is now a run-of-the-mill affair; codes can be used to camouflage crucial information that is being passed on or received. However much budgetary funds a government might spend towards beefing up its security and surveillance network, those determined to conduct clandestine operations are unlikely to be deterred. Whether a consignment of RDX explosives has been offloaded at a remote point along the Malabar coast or a carton of AK-47 rifles is being smuggled along the Burma-Mizoram border will be tidings most difficult to unravel even under the aegis of a super-efficient intelligence apparatus.

A few other factors are of equal significance. The absentminded disinterestedness of the rest of the world has hardly mattered, a new generation of Arabic-speaking youth is now demanding its place under the equatorial and sub-equatorial sun. It is not just the afterglow of the Algerian, the Nasser and the Libyan revolutions, nor the spin-off of the humiliation and tribulations inflicted upon the Palestine people by the Israelis. This new generation, many of whom spring from affluent families lush with petro-money, has taken to information technology as well as to the reading of tracts authored by the likes of Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmed.

There is a cultural aspect of the anti-American mood currently sweeping the Islamic world, and which involves a stirring of both intelligence and passion. The good guy-bad guy mindset of Western films has been more than countered by a fearsome belief that is a compendium of Islamic pride and Egypto-Assyrian ethos. It is increasingly becoming irrelevant whether a cluster of Arab youngsters are studying in the United States of America or gallivanting along Rio de Janeiro beaches or enrolling in a taliban course in Pakistan; a common determination is binding them together. The ultimate purpose they want to achieve may be often inchoate, often chaotic. The fervour is unmistakable though. These foals are dangerous, because they have imbibed a philosophy of life; their anger will be out whatever the circumstances. One can disagree with their philosophy, but counter-terrorism on the part of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Intelligence and the minions in the neo-imperial stretches will be of little avail where the confrontation is with a strong-willed set of intense zealots who do not mind sacrificing their lives for a Great Cause.

The American quest for infinite justice is, in the circumstances, likely to remain unfulfilled; all that the protagonists of counter-terror can hope for is a temporary abatement of activities engineered by restless Arab youth. Some of them will die; others will quickly supplant them. A permanent surcease is out of the question, since the great enchantment with the West will refuse to die down.

The super-state has enough resources to cope with the predicament. It can afford to pour money down the drain, or in pursuit of a mirage. Problems will however overwhelm its lackeys. Their economic plight is already precarious, although many of them are blissfully unaware of that fact. Not all of the subaltern states will be as lucky as Pakistan whose huge budgetary deficits are permanently underwritten by the superpower. Other countries wanting to emulate free-spending crusaders could walk into a fiscal jam. To find a way out, they may be forced to cut back expenditure on health, education and social welfare programmes. The clarion call will be for sacrifice for the sake of the nation. The standard clichés, special favourites of bogus patriots, will be on display: the need of the hour is the tightening of belts, our country right or wrong, the overall interest of the nation must prevail over other considerations, and so on.

Destitution and immiserization of the majority of the people may intensify, essential tasks toward building the economic infrastructure may wait, joblessness may grow. None of this can apparently be helped. The police and military top brass will henceforth decide the national priorities. After all, we are at war against international terrorism. The youth astir against US hegemonism could prove to be tough resisters. Countries desperately anxious to keep up with the Joneses in defence spending will be awfully cash-strapped. Not so those who are in a position to fall back on petroleum dollars from family sources; the latter do not have to bother about raising money through petty larceny or kidnapping either. For poor countries anxious to demonstrate their loyalty to the American way, the fate could then be decided by the degree of tolerance their people exhibit toward continuing suffering and impoverishment.

Whatever else happens, it is the season for rejoicing of the world’s arms merchants. Whatever the age, whatever the clime, they are never to be defeated. They sell arms, from the old-fashioned ones to state-of-the-art Kalashnikovs; they trade with the down and out small-time smugglers, with organized insurgency groups, with Latin American underworld tycoons, with itinerant pedestrians of both revolution and counter-revolution. They exist, we exist for their sake. They exist, therefore calamity awaits us.

Cutting Corners is appearing on Thursday only this week

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN / TIME TO BEGIN A WHOLE NEW YEAR 
 
 
BY NAVIN CHANDRA JOSHI
 
 
The issue of changing the financial year of the country has been buried for a long time even though discussions have been taking place for several years now. With the second phase of economic reforms already underway, the review of the financial year becomes almost as important as the review of economic policies. Even though the financial year in India happens to be from April 1 to March 31, it is not clear why this is so. Perhaps, it is now time for economic experts and policy-makers to review this period and change it if necessary.

There has also been a consensus in the past in several quarters that the current fiscal year, which was put into practice in 1897, should be reviewed. A high-level committee headed by L.K. Jha conducted an in-depth study of this issue in consultation with the authorities of various states. In its report submitted to the government on April 27, 1985, it had suggested two alternative financial years that could replace the one currently being followed. One is from January to December and the other from July to June.

To change the financial year one has to consider several things: agricultural conditions, the need to maximize the utilization of the working season, the convenience of the members of parliament and state legislatures, the timing of the festival season and so on.

Options to consider

The financial year is also important in the presentation of the Union and state budgets. The estimates committee of the first Lok Sabha observed in 1950 that the system of accounting and budgeting had become cumbersome, thus necessitating a much-needed revision of the system. Subsequently, a committee headed by Mahavir Tyagi was set up to review the proposal of change.

Later, the estimates committee of the second Lok Sabha had recommended the commencement of the financial year from October 1, so that the framing of revised estimates could be done more accurately. The committee felt that the monsoon months could be utilized for the penultimate and final estimation of budget proposals. The budget could be presented in the later half of August and voted on by the end of September. The government, however, did not agree with these suggestions. In 1967, the administrative reforms commission on financial administration examined the issue.

If one were to take into account the revenue and expenditure estimates, then the most suitable date would be January 1. On the other hand, if one were to prioritize performance, then the choice should be between October 1 and July 1.

Field day

Since the revenue of the government fluctuates considerably with the failure or the success of agricultural production, which in turn depends on the south-west monsoon, any attempt to change the financial year will have to keep this in mind. Further, the performance of the industrial sector depends to a large extent on the agricultural sector. Therefore, the government must have some idea of the expected agricultural production before the budget is prepared.

If the government were to change the financial year to October 1, it would have to present the budget a month earlier. This would mean that no estimate would be available of the expected agricultural production. January 1 is therefore the only viable alternative. Any change in the financial year would also entail changes in various laws, especially those related to taxation. At the moment, different assessees follow different years — the calender year, the Diwali year, the financial year and so on.

One must also remember that other countries also have different financial years. In Britain, Japan, Netherlands, Greece and Canada, the financial year commences from April 1 while in countries like France and Germany it begins from January 1. In the United States of America, the financial year begins from July 1, and in Burma, from October 1.

For India, the choice seems to be the calender year, that is January to December. Given that a change in the financial year will be compatible with the economic reforms, the issue deserves a proper debate both inside and outside Parliament.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / THE PM’S NEW POEMS 
 
 
BY AVEEK SEN
 
 
21 POEMS
By Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
Viking, Rs 195

Feudal courts have produced brilliant writing. Patrons and sycophants, fear and self-advancement, have given us The Prince and The Faerie Queene. Machiavelli and the Medicis, or Spenser and the Elizabethan court existed in a sophisticated literary milieu which could give to political power a complex and attractive aesthetic form. This collection of the prime minister’s poems looks bijou and understated. The jacket shows an evening sky over stretches of turquoise water, promising serene reflections, while the poet’s photograph expresses introspection, resolve and transcendence. The number of poems in the selection suggests some obscure, even playful, mystical significance. Twenty-one poems.

But it is difficult to write about this book earnestly, because one couldn’t care enough to be annoyed with what it actually offers. It is the result of collaboration between a politician and a diplomat. The originals are in classical Hindi. The translations are in correct English. But there is no literary merit on either side of this parallel text. The translator, Pavan K. Varma, has been in the foreign service and is now the Indian ambassador to Cyprus. His postings aren’t terribly enviable: Bulgaria, Russia, Cyprus. But they seem to have left him with time for reading and writing. He has translated Ghalib and Kaifi Azmi, written a biography of Krishna (the god) and on the Indian middle class.

To succeed Krishna, Ghalib and Azmi is good for a politician trying to dissociate himself, at least publicly, from sectarian and partisan politics. Atal Bihari Vajpayee has mastered the art of rhetorical tightrope-walking — between pluralist Centre and fundamentalist fringe, swayamsevak past and liberalist future. This selection projects a persona which is either stoically transcendent or monumentally solitary. “Never place me so high”, appeals the poet after being awarded the Padma Vibhushan. “A person is as solitary/ As the height to which he rises,/ He bears his burdens alone,/ Wears his smiles, and weeps unseen.” Such mundane things as history and politics are left far below at these heights. The gentle mists of recollection gather around the monument sometimes. But most often it wears a self-effacing, pensive, even valedictory expression. There is also a lot of melancholy, with vague talk of loss. But every now and then, the harness bells are given a doughty shake; resolve and dynamism take over, together with heroism of the say-not-the-struggle-naught-availeth kind.

But history and allusion do enter — through the back door. The endnotes repeatedly place the Vajpayee martyrology in relation to the Emergency. The consolations of poetry are for those repeatedly persecuted by tyranny. Once a swayamsevak, always a swayamsevak, albeit one given to “musings”, as from Kumarakom. The allusions in these poems are all from the Hindu epics. Sometimes the poet is Angad, sometimes he is Arjuna. At such moments, the first person is always plural: “Let us, like Arjuna proclaim:/ We will not cower, nor shall we quit.” There is a stupendously pacifist poem on Pakistan: “Russian bombs or American, the blood spilt is the same.” And there is one about not being able to sleep at night thinking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Vajpayee’s introduction tells us that a poem by his father was sung at school assemblies, and the prime minister laments having to deliver lots of speeches. This is useful information, since the poetry perpetually hovers between demagogy and the school anthem. We also learn that one of his earliest poems was about the Taj Mahal, “not about its beauty, but the exploitation and suffering that marked its construction”. The khaki shorts and saffron flags, never overtly present in this selection, pervade its rhetoric and tone.

It was a “a joy and a revelation” for Varma to translate Vajpayee’s poems. This is sad. But then, some of Delhi’s best artists have noisily illustrated a recent book of insufferable poems by a scion of India’s most important family.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / HOW TO DEFINE AN INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST 
 
 
BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
 
 
TERRIORISM & RESPONSE TO TERRORIST THREAT
By Ranjit K. Pachnanda,
UBSPD, Rs 395

Waging war on terrorism is a necessary but inadequate way of fighting evil. An effective anti-terrorism strategy has to be much more than a military-police-intelligence exercise. Such a strategy must examine why some sections of people the world over are getting so alienated from the civil society that they live only to kill or be killed. It is therefore important for governments and societies to decide how they respond to terrorist threats. Before the sensational attacks on September 11 last year, it remained a problem largely for intelligence outfits, the police and other state agencies. But terrorism is now increasingly seen as a problem for the common man, too. Thanks to an expanding body of terrorism literature, people are getting to know about the worldwide terrorist networks, their murky operations and the destructive impact these can have on economic, political and social systems. It is good that this is happening because the campaign against terrorism is too important to be left only to statesmen and counter-terrorism agencies.

Pachnanda’s book is limited in its scope. It is like a handbook or a manual that provides some elementary knowledge about terrorism, different terrorist groups in India and abroad and the international community’s legal and other battles against the menace. There is an attempt to record the high points of terrorism in India and elsewhere, but it reads rather like a catalogue without either a perspective or a proper framework of references.

The book tries to “define” various brands of terrorism, trace their origins and explain the causes behind their rise. It then goes on to describe the “characteristics” and the “psyche” of the terrorist. As a police officer who had some experience of tackling a militant political movement bordering on guerrilla warfare during the Gorkhaland movement in West Bengal and who later served on the Special Protection Group in New Delhi, Pachnanda knows it is not easy to find a definition that will explain the complex nature of modern international terrorism.

He knows that the Khalistani or the Kashmiri terrorist, with whom India has been familiar, is not in the same league as Osama bin Laden, whose financial muscle, organizational skills and religious motivation mark the modern-day international terrorist. His definition of terrorism are therefore culled from those in the law books of different countries, but he manages to make a distinction between the terrorist and other types of criminals. Similarly, it may be useful to get some idea of the special laws that countries have framed and the strategies discussed at international conventions to fight terrorism. The texts of different international resolutions should be useful reference points.

This is not a book that fulfils expectations of gaining a deeper understanding of the evil ideology of terrorism. But it may be a useful primer on the subject.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / WHAT KEEPS INDIA ALIVE AND TICKING 
 
 
BY SUHRITA SAHA
 
 
INDIA’S WOUNDED POLITY: THE WHIPS AND SCORNS OF TIME FROM INDEPENDENCE TO THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
By H.N. Bali,
Om, Rs 800

This book does not claim to be a research work but a personal testament of an ordinary Indian citizen. The period between the end of World War II and August 15, 1947, remains a grey area. The author reminds us of what happened and how all that effects our lives till date.

In the drama leading to Partition, there were different sets of actors. First, the Congress leaders who had lost the nerve to fight. Second, M.A. Jinnah, the sole spokesman of the Muslims of India. Third, the British viceroy who never failed to arouse the expectations of the separatists. And finally, Gandhi, who had by then been marginalized. As the war in Europe was heading to a decisive end, the government in Britain knew that negotiations with Indian leaders could not be postponed any longer.

India got independence on August 15, 1947, but at a very high cost. Partition was the genesis of a tragedy that continues to haunt the subcontinent even today. The man whom destiny willed to give India a headstart over others in Asia after the retreat of Western colonization was Nehru. According to the author, that has been India’s greatest misfortune because Nehru failed miserably. His unquestioning acceptance of the Soviet paradigm of economic development without really caring for the Indian context never bore its fruits. The hopelessly outdated colonial administrative system was not thoroughly overhauled. The Nehruvian legacy carried on by Indira Gandhi led to manifold problems.

First and foremost, argues the author, India evolved into a soft state where laws are made but never implemented because of the lack of political will. Second, the creation of the licence-permit-quota raj hindered socio-economic progress. Dynastic rule along with populist politics led to dire economic consequences and the “crisis of governability”. Neglect of education as an instrument of social change and lack of fundamental agrarian reform have perpetuated class polarization. Practise of “minorityism” in the name of secularism has done more damage than good.

In spite of all these and more, the author believes that India has survived due to the highest ideals of Hindu religion and philosophy which has held the people of this land together. He even gives guidelines for a better future. Constitutional review, judicial reform, uniform civil code, a truly representative democracy, administrative efficiency and accountability are a few remedies suggested.

While the author shows concern for the future of India, much of his generalizations are simplistic. Partition was a much more complex historical event than a consequence of power play. Nor is it the sole cause of tragedy in human history. Moreover, what keeps India ticking is a million dollar question, the answer to which is definitely not the Hindu religion and its unifying spirit, as the author would have us believe.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE / IDOLS OF THE MARKETPLACE 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 

Some authors say that they write to please themselves and do not in the least care how many or how few readers they have. Or, in other words, that pleasing themselves they do not mind if they fail to please anybody else. This mental attitude may have been alright 100 years ago but no longer holds because the moment the author publishes a book he has stationed himself in the marketplace, beaten a drum. The market is all but how do the author or the publisher go about knowing this demand?

For pure educational texts, this is pretty simple: you know the books there are in the market, what’s wrong with them and therefore how to improve their editorial content, production qualities and price them competitively with the new computerized techniques available. But it isn’t so simple when it comes to books like fiction, poetry, drama, topics of contemporary interest on politics, philosophy, economics to science, technology, medicine, and so on, where the market is diffused over a wide area. Whatever market researchers say, there is no pat technique for identifying this market. It comes from virtually “walking the streets”, from a wide range of reading and contacts that gives the pulse of what the market wants to hear. What must be remembered is that a book may be very good as a book and yet be a disaster on the commercial side because of its untimeliness.

And untimeliness can be of two kinds. The book may either be untimely in regard to general taste, opinion, feeling, or untimely in regard to the author’s actual reputation and standing. For the publisher, the choice of the author is as important as the editorial quality and timeliness of the book. You could say that taste, feeling, author’s acceptability and so on are generalities but any worthwhile publisher who has played the game for some time knows what this means, even if he does not say so in that many words.

But timeliness and quality are not all when it comes to getting the book across to the potential buyer. With so many books vying for a slot on the crowded bookshelves, marketing has to be so much more aggressive. Not only has the price to be right, discounts and credits to the trade more generous but the author has to become the lynchpin in the promotion campaign. This means that the author has to be “seen” along with the book — on TV talk shows, in bookshops to sign copies of the book and launch parties where the book is first released to the general public. Sadly, in these days where over-exposure and overkill have no threshold limits, there is no way an author can get away from high-pressure marketing techniques.

Given the fact that bottom-line philosophy is all that matters now, the desire for the greatest number of readers is not only desirable but also a proper ambition for every writer to have. A readerless author is an unenviable position. He is like the courier messenger with a packet to deliver but no destination. Like it or not, authors had better fall in line if they have to find a public and hold on to it.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

Entangled in the diaspora

THE VINE OF DESIRE
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
(Abacus, £6.50)

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Vine of Desire is an over-ripe novel about friendship between two women and the men in their lives. It stretches from Calcutta to the United States, and offers the international reader that heady cocktail of The Diaspora, Women and Suffering which could take the place of literary merit in the global fiction bazaar. Banerjee Divakaruni’s epigraphs are dazzling, and show wide reading: from Shri Shankaracharya to Raymond Carver to Robert Calasso. There is incessant experimentation with female subjectivity, and delicate probing of sundry lacunae, aporia, lies, secrets and silences. Mush oozes out of every pore of this stiflingly copious novel. Sample: “In the beginning was pain...She was focusing on the boy, the way he clung to the wet-silk walls of her womb. They rippled like the muscles of an angry snake, trying to shake him off. He curled himself inward, tight as a peach pit, hoping for invisibility. She hoped for him, too. But there is no fooling the flesh that formed you.” And this is only the beginning. Banerjee Divakaruni is a prolific writer. Some of her other books are called The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart.

THE BEST OF SATYAJIT RAY

(Penguin, Rs 250)

The Best of Satyajit Ray is a fair selection of short fiction from this master of the uncanny. Most of the stories are translated by Gopa Majumdar, quite well, and eight by the author himself. A good number from Ray’s memorably weird Bengali babudom are here — the babus Patol, Bonku, Ashamanja and Anath — with their everyday pathologies. Yet they somehow do not come entirely alive in English, removed from the wonderfully crisp Bengali in which they were originally created. One also misses Ray’s illustrations. The oddest item in this selection is Majumdar’s translation of “Pikoo’s Diary”, printed here in a patently simulated child’s handwriting. Not entirely in the best of taste.

POSITIVE LIVES
By Kalpana Jain
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Kalpana Jain’s Positive Lives is an important and readable book which combines consciousness-raising journalism with the human heart factor. It is about HIV/AIDS in India, and the many levels at which it touches the everyday lives of Indian men and women. Jain weaves together real-life stories with varied and far-reaching analyses of Indian morality and communities. She takes her discussion beyond the prostitutes-and-truck-drivers stereotype of AIDS in India to include homosexual and bisexual men and their particular experience of the virus. This book uses an easy and engaging style, and appends a bibliography (which could have been fuller) and a directory of “positive people’s networks”. Jain sometimes tends to overdo the “We shall overcome” element in order to give the book an upbeat tone.

JI PRADHANMANTRIJI, VOL 1: THE DIARIES OF SHRI SURYAPRAKASH SINGH
(Penguin, Rs 195)

Ji Pradhanmantriji, Vol 1: The Diaries Of Shri Suryaprakash Singh is Monisha Shah’s English version of Purushottam Agarwal’s Indian adaptation of Jonathan Lynn’s and Antony Jay’s original BBC television series, Yes Prime Minister. This complicated line of descent is partly the problem with the book. The humour of the British original is difficult to retain in the context of the Indian political culture and its peculiar linguistic registers. R.K. Laxman’s illustrations are a bonus, and bring to the volume a kind of satire which is somewhat different from the tone of the Indian serial.

BOLLYWOOD
By Ashok Banker
(Penguin, Rs 125)

Ashok Banker’s Bollywood is a clever book whose opening sentence from the chapter called “Hindi and Hip: The Cool New Face of Bollywood” speaks for the rest of it: “Check it out. Bollywood, as the Bombay-based Hindi film industry is affectionately nicknamed, is the new cool in international cinema.” Bollywood obviously fosters exaggeration and the systematic vulgarization of the English language. But Banker’s cleverness takes all this up into a trendy journalese, which battens on everything kitsch from Raja Harishchandra to Lagaan. There are synopses and critical comments, together with “Highlights” and “Kiss-Kitsch” ratings.

The Books page is being carried on Thursday only this week.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

That’s not cricket

Sir — Years ago, when I was growing up in Calcutta, there was this gentleman going by the incongruous name of Othello Mazumdar. Come every Sunday, and the Neil O’Brien quiz in The Telegraph magazine would feature a question by this tragic soul. It was rumoured that Mazumdar was O’Brien himself, using a nom de plume. I have a sense of deja vu each time I read Ashok Mitra’s editorial page harangue, and Kajal Chatterjee’s enthusiastic rejoinder. Having scorched the West and the rest of the greedy globe with his pen, Mitra has turned his attention inwards, and whom do we have in the spotlight but Sachin Tendulkar (“Played by other rules”, Feb 15). Yes sir, he is the conniving capitalist from Mumbai, out to ruin Indian cricket. Never mind that the little feller makes as many runs as he does moolah. Or that the Don (not Corleone) named him the next best thing. Get a grip, Mr Mitra. Next time Tendulkar pads up, just watch the fireworks — and ignore the cola commercials. He’s the only genuine world-class article going in this land.

Yours faithfully,
Arun Choubey, Calcutta

Promises to keep

Sir — It is budget time again. The finance minister’s speech to Parliament on February 28 will no doubt be full of his usual juggling trick with figures. He will surely announce a few populist measures, interspersed with shers. Members of the ruling coalition will, as a matter of course, hail the budget, while the opposition will unabashedly run it down — when all the while we know that had their roles been reversed, their reactions would have been the opposite. Financial experts and businessmen will be all over the television channels, expounding on the budget’s many provisions, while the next day’s newspapers will include tables enumerating which articles will cost more and which less. In all this, the common man will remain, as helpless and clueless as ever. And yet another budget will have passed.

Yours faithfully,
Dhrubajyoti Ray, Mankundu

Sir — The cut in interest rates on small savings schemes, the removal of personal income tax exemptions and the extension of the five per cent service tax, which the Economic Survey presages, will affect the working class adversely (“Survey signals cut in small savings rate”, Feb 27). Those who have retired or have accepted voluntary retirement and have invested all their savings in instruments like post office deposits, National Savings Certificate and so on, will be affected the most by the one per cent interest rate cut. These small investors have already been hit hard by the Unit Trust of India scandal, and the consequent drop in the net asset value of many UTI schemes. The budget is likely to be a negative one for the common man and a positive one for the business classes. Not only will the rich will become richer and the poor even poorer, but the middle classes will also become poor. Given such government apathy, the middle classes will soon find it difficult to maintain their standard of living.

Yours faithfully,
Purnima Vasudeva, Calcutta

Sir — In a recent speech, Yashwant Sinha estimated that the gross domestic product growth rate will be seven per cent this financial year. Was he joking or does he live in a fool’s paradise?

The GDP has been limping along at a measly 4.5 per cent this year. The Indian economy is in a mess and none but Sinha is to blame. Remember his wonderful budget last year, in which he had promised a series of reform measures? None of them — the finance responsibility bill, subsidy reduction or measures to widen the tax net — was implemented. As a result, the government is in as big a mess as it was in 1991, when the fiscal deficit had reached 10 per cent. There have been massive lay-offs in both the public and private sectors, industrial growth is at a standstill and agricultural growth is not encouraging either. The government has been losing crores in taxes because corporates have been routing foreign investments through Mauritius to take advantage of India’s treaty with that country to avoid double taxation.

The opposition too seems more interested in regional politics than in safeguarding the interests of the people. It should grill Sinha on the mess in the financial sector and remind him of the commitments he made in his last budget speech. All political parties should come together to curb wasteful expenditure so the money saved can be used to improve infrastructure. But perhaps this is too much to expect from today’s politicians, many of whom have criminal records or are neck-deep in corruption.

Yours faithfully,
Tamal Basu, via email

Sir — Yashwant Sinha has already made life difficult for the salaried classes and small investors by reducing interest rates on provident fund schemes and bank deposits and widening the income tax base by including nearly all types of allowances. Apparently, in this budget the government wants to withdraw the income tax relief now allowed on government securities.

Worse, the hire and fire policy and other amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act and the Contract Labour Act will add to the workers’ woes. These will only benefit the industrial houses which anyway control the country’s economy. With unemployment looming large as a result of global recession, these amendments will add a few more lakhs to the already bloated numbers of the jobless.

No one denies that labour reforms are necessary to restructure the economy. But the finance minister must ensure that these measures are accompanied by adequate safeguards like social security schemes. Sinha should ensure that, at the very least, interest on providend fund, gratuity, separation compensation and so on is exempt from income tax.

Yours faithfully,
Srinivasan Balakrishnan, Jamshedpur

Sir — The ceiling on investments into the public providend fund is Rs 60,000. The salaried, unlike the self-employed, also have recourse to the general providend fund. The ceiling on PPF for self-employed individuals should be increased since they cannot invest in the general PF fund.

Yours faithfully,
Hara Lal Chakraborty, Calcutta

Sir — The more income tax laws are made simple, the more complicated they become. The proof of this lies in the newly introduced tax forms — which were earlier used during scrutiny. And to think that these complicated forms are called “saral”.

Yours faithfully,
M. Kumar, New Delhi

Sir — Many taxpayers do not know the intricacies of proper tax planning. They file their tax returns very close to the March 31 deadline or after the close of the financial year. Hence they pay heavy penalties and lose what they could have saved with a little planning. They don’t realize that they can avoid paying taxes legally using loopholes in the Income Tax Act.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kapasi, New Delhi

Sir — I urge the finance minister to consider extending the relaxation of income tax on loan instalments and interest payments to educational loans as well. This will benefit thousands of students.

Yours faithfully,
Manu Bhattacharya, Midnapore

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